LeBron James doesn’t stumble like Kawhi Leonard did — that’s what makes him LeBron James


The Clippers‘ epic collapse, including Kawhi Leonard’s underwhelming performance that helped lead to it, underscored something remarkable about the Los Angeles basketball team that did make it to the Western Conference finals.

LeBron James.

It is so easy to take for granted all that the Lakers‘ star has — and may continue to this postseason. — accomplish. But in Leonard, we have a poignant if painful reminder to go along with the record-setting announcement that LeBron earned his 16th All-NBA Team selection.

Kawhi with the Clippers felt like a sure-thing recipe for at least a conference finals appearance. The Clippers had been Vegas’ favorites to win for a reason, much of it predicated on their newly-acquired star. Leonard arrived with two Finals MVP awards — with the Spurs as the second-youngest ever recipient and the Raptors as that jinxed team’s sure-fire playoff savior — and that rare gift of greatness in the game’s most tenuous and telling moments.

Yet we forget how hard, how damn impossible it almost is, to be great so often that you are a sure-fire path to playoff success. We expect everyone to be Jordan when to Be Like Mike was actually, even at this level, even for almost every other NBA great, an unattainable dream.

We get bored, too, us fans, us media, even those in NBA circles of power. We’re human, and humans like newness, the shiny promise of the possible, the sexy feeling of that new storyline. And in this NBA, a riveting drama of excellence and great young players, there is much to focus on that is not the same story going back to 2010, and before.

Kawhi is great. Giannis Antetokounmpo is remarkable. Luka Doncic may indeed live up to his growing promise. James Harden and Russell Westbrook have won MVP awards. Jimmy Butler has found the perfect place for his style of play. Damian Lillard can do things that baffle the mind. Jamal Murray is a man emerging into greatness before our eyes. Nikola Jokic is a revelation. On and on it goes, so many storylines and great players we can forget – we overlook – the rarity, greatness, and utter domination of LeBron James.

In Kawhi’s letdown — and the Clippers’ failure — is the proper context to remember that James rattled off eight consecutive Finals appearances. Eight. That if his heavily favored Lakers beat the Nuggets in their Western Conference finals series that starts Friday night, he’ll have played in nine of the last 10 championship series.

That’s …. That’s just insane.

The All-NBA accolades were another prod to appreciate LeBron while we can, while he’s still here, playing at a level almost unmatched in the game’s history. Those 16 All NBA teams set a record, surpassing legendary names like Kobe, Duncan and Kareem. It all pushed his All-NBA First Team nods to a record-breaking 13.

Not to pick on Kawhi, but he’s the perfect measuring stick by which to take proper stock of LeBron’s unique place in the game’s history. Had Leonard’s Clippers won the NBA championship this year, his personal ring count would have matched LeBron’s at three. And all of those who talked about Kawhi perhaps elevating himself in that way at or near LeBron’s level — myself included — missed this point: Winning four straight postseason series is such a grueling task there’s no guarantee you even get close.

If, if, if. Those expectations are silly and unlikely because simply taking a team to the Finals through a LeBron James team remains one of the hardest things to do in professional sports.

LeBron is the only sure thing the NBA has produced in his era, without exception. He may very well finish his career as the game’s all-time leading scorer, a top-five all-time assist leader and, in what may be an increasingly crowded and competitive collection of NBA stars and teams, the last great NBA one-man Finals monopoly.

Harden, Antetokounmpo, Leonard, Siakam and so many others have provided a refresher course that being great, being great in the playoffs, and being great in the playoffs year after year after year without fail are vastly different things.

There’s also a lesson, in that Clippers debacle and Leonard letdown, for LeBron and those pining that he will pass (or believing he already has passed) Michael Jordan as the game’s greatest-ever player: No matter how exceptional, or accomplished, you may be, you must take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to you. Kawhi did not do that this year. LeBron still can.

As James approaches age 36, there will — there must? — come a time when he physically cannot do the things that still marvel and dominate. Time runs short for everyone, sooner or later, even for LeBron James. And this year might be the best — and last “easy” — chance at a championship since he made his first NBA Finals appearance when Giannis was 12.

The Golden State Warriors, thanks to injuries, were non-factors this year. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, together now in Brooklyn, did not play this season. The Milwaukee Bucks and their reigning MVP vacated in the second round. The aforementioned Clippers did what they did.

It’s true, too, that home-court advantage, such as it is, does not exist in Orlando. What does is stress, frustration, for some the depression Paul George bravely talked about, and the unsettling fact that a different kind of mental resilience — part basketball-oriented, part life-oriented — will play a major role in deciding this year’s champion.

That, too, LeBron has navigated, without fanfare, without credit, but with sublime success — another unnoticed marker of his greatness.

And so here we are, with old-reliable LeBron near another Finals appearance, with just the Nuggets in the way. They are young, they are talented, they are worthy, and they can certainly win this series. But they are not the obstacle we expected and for good reason.

If the Lakers win, they will play a very good Heat team or very good Celtics team. But, again, Giannis MVP-excellence will not be waiting, nor will Toronto’s length and championship pedigree.

No Steph. No Durant. No Giannis. No Kawhi. Four of the game’s — what, six best, at worst? — players will not stand before LeBron’s quest for another title.

Greatness, like LeBron’s, is so painfully rare. So, too, is a chance like the one this bizarre 2020 has delivered in the NBA bubble to whatever star could seize it.

And both those facts, it turns out, could be the defining stories of these playoffs.





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